Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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8.3.1 Communicating terrorist risk

Gabe Mythen and Sandra Walklate’s ‘Communicating the Terrorist Risk: Harnessing a Culture of fear?’ offers a critical analysis of the UK government’s strategy to communicate the risk of terrorism to the British public. It examines how this strategy fits and interacts with broader notions of risk, crime and security circulating in British culture, framing the debate in terms of Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ thesis.

Beck (1992) argued that there has been a shift in advanced industrial societies from seeing social progress in terms of gaining positive things (‘e.g. income, health care, education, housing’, (Mythen and Walklate, 2006, p124)) to a more negative notion of avoiding bad things (‘e.g. crime, … pollution, AIDS and terrorism’, ibid.). In this context, the optimal strategy becomes one of minimising risk. Mythen and Walklate argue that this description captures something of a shift in how politicians talk about their aims, and has had a material impact on policy decisions, such as the increase (‘more than doubling’) of UK government expenditure on national security between 2004 and 2008 (ibid. p139, note 2). As well as mapping shifts in political discourse, the article also examines how increased concern with risk avoidance impacts on how we as individuals live our lives.

Activity 34 Communicating terrorist risk

Please read the sections of the article [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] outlined below now, and note your answers to the questions as you progress. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

Abstract (p123) and p124–5 ('Risk, Security and the New Terrorism' to '... new form of terrorism') and p126–7 ('Putting aside ... threat').

1. What is meant by the phrase to 'think security'? Why, aside from any actual increase in threats, might an emphasis on security appeal to a government?

P127–9 ('Communicating Risk: Making Up the War Against Terrorism' – ‘Communicating risk ...’ to ‘... the same thing.’)

2. What examples of ‘national security issues being leaked backstage’ (p128) do the authors discuss? Why do the authors think they have been leaked, and what effects on public perceptions of risk has this had?

3. What criticisms of the phrase ‘war against terrorism’ do the authors make (p129)?

P133–7 'The State, Responsibilization and the Politics of Fear'

4. What is ‘responsibilization’, and in what ways is the government leaflet ‘Helping to Prevent a Terrorist Attack’ an example of it (p133–6)?

P137–9 'Conclusion' (first and last paragraphs only)

5. What are the main arguments presented in these paragraphs?


  1. To 'think security' means to put minimisation of harm (in contrast to maximisation of good) at the centre of the policy agenda, informing debates on issues including crime, the environment, AIDS and terrorism (p124). This emphasis may in part be because discourse on security has a more universal resonance than discourses on goods, since harms may potentially strike anyone, whereas goods are likely to be unevenly distributed. A discourse with potentially universal address has considerable appeal in increasingly diverse societies.
  2. Examples of national security issues being leaked unofficially include alleged plots to crash a plane into Canary Wharf, to launch surface to air missiles at Heathrow Airport, explosive strikes on the House of Parliament and a bomb plot at Old Trafford football stadium. The authors suggest that these may have been leaked to heighten public awareness of the government's efforts to combat the terrorist threat, and reassure the public of the effectiveness of the security services. However, it seems likely that the publicisation of these alleged plots has heightened public anxieties about the threat of a terrorist attack.
  3. Mythen and Walklate argue that the phrase 'war against terrorism' is problematic first because it differs from usual senses of 'wars against' in being directed against an abstract noun ('terrorism') rather than a specific nation or identifiable group. They also argue that refers to a potentially 'disparate sense of ideas' rather than 'a coherent ... set of achievable goals' (p129). The danger is that this diffuse notion influences and prejudices debate about a whole range of issues which require independent consideration.
  4. 'Responsibilization' is not precisely defined, but seems to refer to a process whereby the burden of responsibility for issues such as crime and terrorist activity is subtly shifted from the state to non-state actors such as individuals and community groups. Garland (2001) locates this development in the context of US and UK governments' response to their failure to 'solve' crime by initiating a discursive shifting to a 'culture of control', in which responsibility is shifted away from the state and on to individuals and 'communities'. The leaflet 'helping to prevent a terrorist attack' illustrates this trend through its emphasis on public responsibility to report suspicious activity to the authorities, yet says nothing beyond broad reassurances about the specific roles of public authorities.
  5. First, the authors point out that the discourses that the government have been producing on the new terrorism will, like fears about crime, be interpreted differently by different sectors of the public according to local, communal and individual experiences. Nonetheless, the way in which the government communicates risk has material effects (like increased defence and police spending), and arguably undermines democracy which, (as Cottle argues), depends public access to 'a free and undistorted range of information' (p138).

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